About Peter B. Reiner

Peter B. Reiner is Professor at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia

Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics. Call for Papers

Deadline: April 1, 2014
More Info: http://www.cognethic.org/journal.htm

The Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics is a new twice-yearly, peer-reviewed, open access journal published online, aimed at the cross-fertilization of research in neuroscience and related medical fields with scholarship in more normative disciplines that focus on legal, social and ethical issues.

The Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics is committed to presenting wide ranging discussions. We are looking to publish works that explore ideas, concepts, theories and their implications across multiple disciplines and professions, including Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics, the neurosciences, the pharmaceutical and medical sciences.

Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics.

Call for Papers

Vol. 2, No. 1 is an open issue. We welcome submissions on all topics relevant to Cognition and Neuroethics.

Articles should not exceed 20,000 words including footnotes and bibliography. For questions concerning submission requirements, see the Submission guidelines at http://www.cognethic.org/journal_submissions.htm

Dialogues provides a forum for the discussion of issues in Cognition and Neuroethics. We welcome authors working together and creating productive conversations to share those discussions here. Submissions for this section should be 4000 words or less.

Analysis offers an opportunity for short analyses (3000 words or less) of specific healthcare policy issues, acts of legislation (either already existing or proposed), court decisions, or other contemporary developments relevant to Cognition and Neuroethics.

Book Reviews are usually solicited; nonetheless we encourage authors to submit their books for consideration for review. We also invite authors to submit Review Essays which survey several works in a particular field. Books and inquiries should be directed to: JCN editor Jami L Anderson, Philosophy Department of University of Michigan-Flint, 303 E. Kearsley Street, Flint, MI 40502-1950; anderson@cognethic.org.

New Faculty Position – National Core for Neuroethics

Core Logo2FACULTY POSITION

National Core for Neuroethics 

Division of Neurology, Department of Medicine University of British Columbia

The Division of Neurology, Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC) invites applications for a full-time academic position at the rank of Assistant Professor, without review to join the dynamic group of researchers in the National Core for Neuroethics. This is a full-time, term position for a period of one year, with the possibility of renewal for up to three years.

The successful candidate will be expected to carry out innovative empirical research in any area relevant to Neuroethics such as, but not limited to: neurotechnology such as neurogenetics neuroimaging, or stem cells; neurodegenerative disease; neurotoxicity and land, addiction and mental health; or, neuroscience policy, communication and knowledge translation. The research must consider and integrate crosscultural issues and perspectives. This position will enable and encourage the successful candidate to pursue independent funding, publish actively, have a presence at and provide leadership at relevant conferences, as well as mentor and supervise trainees. The successful candidate will also be expected to bring visibility to the Core and the Department of Medicine by hosting distinguished speakers and leading seminars.

Applicants with a PhD and background in basic or clinical neurosciences, biomedical ethics or other areas relevant to neuroscience and society are encouraged to apply.

The successful candidate will show demonstrated potential for excellence in teaching and will be expected to participate in the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate teaching activities of the Division, Department and the Core.

Salary will be commensurate with qualifications and experience and the anticipated start date will be as early as July 1, 2014.

UBC hires on the basis of merit and is committed to employment equity. All qualified persons are encouraged to apply. UBC is strongly committed to diversity within its community and especially welcomes applications from visible minority group members, women, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, persons of any sexual orientation or gender identity, and others who may contribute to the further diversification of ideas. However, Canadian and permanent residents of Canada will be given priority.

Applications should include a curriculum vitae, a teaching dossier, a statement describing research interests and plans, and three (3) letters of reference addressing scholarly, professional and creative work, teaching and administration. Applications should be submitted no later than December 15, 2013 to the attention of:

Ms Yvonne Ng
UBC Division of Neurology
2211 Wesbrook Mall, Koerner S196 Phone: 604-822-7929
Email: Yvonne.Ng@vch.ca

Experimental Neuroethics

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Photo credit: Timothy Epp, Shutterstock

Four years ago, Neil Levy gave the concluding lecture at the first Brain Matters conference in Halifax. He alerted the audience of neuroethicists to the fact that the field of philosophy was undergoing a revolution – rather than muse from their armchairs in the ivory tower, a group of renegade philosophers were carrying out real experiments, asking people what their intuitions were about central issues in philosophy. Dubbed experimental philosophy, the new initiative was met with more than passing resistance from traditional philosophers. The apostate experimental philosophers responded by developing a logo of a burning armchair.

The landmark experiment was carried out by Josh Knobe, and its findings subsequently became known as the Knobe effect (you can watch a great recreation of the phenomenon in this YouTube video). Essentially, what Josh did was repurpose an old method from social psychology called the contrastive vignette technique (CVT) [1]. At its simplest, the CVT involves designing a pair of vignettes that carefully describe a particular situation (in the case of experimental philosophy, one that is often morally charged) but crucially differ in one detail, hence the term contrastive. Respondents see one and only one version of the vignette, and are then asked questions about what they have just read, with responses commonly recorded as a numerical rating on a Likert scale. By comparing the averaged responses between separate groups of people who have read the vignettes, the experimenter can systematically investigate the effects of small changes (of which the respondents are entirely unaware) upon attitudes towards nearly any topic. The experimental philosophers tend to use the technique to explore the meaning of concepts. Neil Levy pointed out that this same approach could, in principle, be applied to the full range of issues in neuroethics.

Neil’s presentation struck me like a thunderbolt. I had come to the field of neuroethics with a background in cellular and molecular biology, and had spent much of my career as a card-carrying reductionist: as a graduate student in the 1980’s, I championing the then-novel technique of recording from single neurons in freely moving animals, and as a postdoc I moved on to the better controlled (if less naturalistic) technique of patch clamp analysis of identified neurons in slices of brains. My subsequent rise through the ranks of academia was one in which I applied quantitative rigor to every question that I asked, and in the circles in which I traveled, this was lauded as the ultimate way to provide reproducible (and by inference, meaningful) results. I saw at once that the CVT opened the door towards doing something similar in the field of neuroethics.

My research group at the National Core for Neuroethics has embraced the use of contrastive vignettes wholeheartedly, and with a nod to the experimental philosophy camp, we call the approach Experimental Neuroethics. The team is applying the technique to a range of issues in contemporary neuroethics, probably best exemplified by our recent publications exploring public attitudes towards cognitive enhancement [2] as well as the acceptability of overt and covert nudges [3].

If the vignettes appear simple, I can assure you that properly crafting them is hard work. We begin with a carefully considered hypothesis and regularly find that the hypothesis morphs substantially (usually into something much more insightful) as the process unfolds. We then compose two or more contrastive vignettes, working hard to have the vignettes as minimally contrastive as possible (one word differences between vignettes is the ultimate goal, but this is often not feasible). Finally, we develop questions; we like to have the wording of the questions always be identical irrespective of the contrastive nature of the vignette.

Then the real fun begins. After a day or two, we assemble as a team and attack our previous work. Inevitably, we find it wanting in some respect. Sometimes, embarrassingly so. We find it best to begin by asking whether the vignette and the questions directly address the hypothesis. Sometimes that means that the hypothesis changes. Nearly always, that means that the vignette changes. This process is repeated again and again, over days and weeks and sometimes months (yes, and even sometimes years!) until we have a set of vignettes that get to the heart of the matter.

At some point late in the process we carry out cognitive pre-testing. This involves sharing the vignette and the questions with someone who has no particular expert knowledge (friends of friends are likely culprits), and debriefing them about what they read. We are sometimes amazed to find that what we intended for people to glean from a vignette is at odds with their reading of the vignette. That sends us back to the drawing board.

We also run some metrics to determine whether the words we have used are understandable by a general audience. We use online readability tests such as this one to establish the educational level required for understanding the vignette; our goal is that no more than a high school education is required. Finally, we launch the survey, recruiting respondents from amongst the thousands of people who have signed up on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – they’re more representative of the real population and aren’t as blatantly WEIRD as typical undergraduate samples. And then we hold our breath.

Once the data is analyzed, we get mired once again in deep discussion. For it is not just the quantitative aspect of Experimental Neuroethics that it satisfying (to me), but also that the data gives us an entirely new benchmark for engaging in the process of wide reflective equilibrium. Throughout this process we remain aware that an ought can not derive from is, but having the data at hand, our version of ought is very much informed by the is. Ultimately, our data emerge in concert with our normative insights, and then one more advantage of Experimental Neuroethics is realized: it is easy for others to replicate our experiments, or even to improve them by taking our vignettes and modifying them to further test their own. This iterative process of replication, critique, and systematic modification has proven to be a robust strategy for advancing insights into the nature of biological and physical phenomena. Only time will tell whether Experimental Neuroethics catches fire in our discipline as it has in the field of philosophy (where it remains controversial). If it does, we can trace it back to Neil’s presentation in Halifax….

[Cross posted at the Neuroethics Blog]


[1] Burstin K, Doughtie E, Raphaeli A. Contrastive Vignette Technique: An indirect Methodology Designed to Address Reactive Social Attitude Measurement1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 1980;10(2):147–65.

[2] Fitz NS, Nadler R, Manogaran P, Chong EWJ, Reiner PB. Public attitudes toward cognitive enhancement. Neuroethics. 2013 doi: 10.1007/s12152-013-9190-z.

[3] Felsen G, Castelo N, Reiner PB. Decisional enhancement and autonomy: public attitudes towards overt and covert nudges. Judgment and Decision Making. 2013;8(3):202–13.

Thoughtfully engaging modernity

Jonathan Franzen’s diatribe article in The Guardiana preview of his forthcoming book The Kraus Project, is provocatively entitled What’s wrong with the modern world? Trotting out many standard objections to techno-utopianism, he particularly bemoans overuse of Twitter, Apple products generally, and even calls out Jeff Bezos as one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. But it is not the Apocalypse of the Bible to which he refers but rather the more personal apocalyptic crises that we all experience. He was introduced to this idea by the early 20th century Viennese cultural critic Karl Kraus, also known as The Great Hater, an individual with whom Franzen has been obsessed for a couple of decades. He explains that,

Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.

Alexander Nazaryan is a bit dyspeptic himself in response to Franzen’s take on modernity, arguing that Franzen’s cri de coeur offers critique sans cure (Notably, Nazaryan offers no remedy either). Michael Jarvis is a bit more sympathetic to the neo-Luddism of Thomas Pynchon in his review of Bleeding Edge, the new novel by the famously reclusive author. Unlike Franzen who tells us that “Not only am I not a Luddite, I’m not even sure the original Luddites were Luddites.”, Pynchon is unabashed about his views on modernity. Like Franzen’s glorification of Kraus as The Great Hater, Pynchon is on the record as exalting Ned Lud – the original Luddite – as Badass. Pynchon argues that the 1779 movement known as Luddism was not a response to technology per se but rather class war, a reaction to the disenfranchisement of poor workers by modern machines. While there is a kernel of truth to his assertion, the mastery over technology that was wrought by the Industrial Revolution represents a cultural shift that is more than just concern for jobs. Tellingly, it was only a few decades later that Mary Shelley sat by the fireside at Villa Diodati, weaving the story that was to become the mainstay of every subsequent backlash to technology, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein still touches a chord, but in today’s world it is decidedly unwise to rail against modernity. Not only will you be pilloried in the press, but even if people buy the argument they will remain in thrall to modern technology – it is just too seductive to ignore. Moreover, the rants miss the point. Personally, I want to engage with modernity and live a rich, juicy life that is authentic and true. In short, I want to flourish as a modern. The better question asks how we might embrace modern technology and do it thoughtfully. And here the best lesson comes from most surprising of sources: the Amish. This past January, I had a chance to have an extended conversation with Jamie Wetmore in his office at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University where he enlightened me about Amish attitudes towards technology. According to Jamey’s studies, the Amish are not anti-technology. Rather, they think often and deeply about how technology affects their values. For the Amish, these are closely interwoven with their religion, and so they choose to decline the adoption of technologies that conflict with their religious values. But the choice is active – they gather together and consider the pluses and minuses, and then collectively decide on a course of action. Those with a more secular take on the world (me!) may harbour a different set of values, but values we have, and it seems to me that is worth following the example of the Amish and ask how does modernity impact my value system? Posed in this way, the question naturally leads to answers that lack the crankiness of Franzen and Pynchon’s tirades, while providing a way to engage that is more thoughtful than the techno-utopian musings of their interlocutors: weigh your engagement with technology with your own personal values.

Ah, but you might say that knowing something is a problem and doing something about it are two different things. Small steps are often the most effective ways to modify behaviour, and here is one that might help. A common complaint about modern life is that in the middle of a conversation, someone glances at their computer or smartphone (are they even different anymore?), checking for what can best be described as I-don’t-know-what-but-something-might-be-new. The person who looks away is distracted; the one who was ignored is, well, ignored. Everyone acknowledges the problem. And everyone does it from time to time. So for the next three days, just do this: notice. Don’t chuck your technology out the window, and definitely don’t beat yourself up about it when you sneak a peek at some digital screen in the middle of a conversation. You might try practicing what the Buddhists suggest to do with any behaviour you want to forestall – get curious about it. What was being said when you looked away? How do you think the other person felt? How did you feel about the whole thing? Most of all, ask yourself whether your actions align with your values. If you want to have the exercise really bear fruit, make a note each time it happens – it could be on paper, or in some electronic file, but the simple act of jotting down what was going on when your mind drifted from present to virtual will help change your brain’s ingrained pattern of behaviour. At first it will be hard, awkward, and maybe even a bit uncomfortable. You will start out catching yourself checking your whatever in the middle of a conversation as frequently as before, but by the third day it will become a rarity. And you will be better for it.

Racing to restoring cognitive function

Wisdom may come with age, but so too does an inexorable decline in cognitive abilities. Whether it is speed of processing, working or long-term memory, it all starts to go downhill as people move into their 30s, and continues as they enter their 40s and beyond (click on the figure for the details). What to do? Some people do crossword puzzles.Mostly they just worry. A few sign up for one of the many brain fitness software suites out there, but do they really work? The answer has mostly been maybe. Until now.

Before getting to the breakthrough, let’s briefly see what the state of affairs were last week. Many studies have shown improvements with brain training, but the gain is mainly in the game; overall, cognitive function is usually not affected. Getting better at a game is all well and good, but that is not what people are after.

One study was a clear exception. In 2008, Jaeggi et al. published a paper in PNAS which showed that one particular game – the N-back task – improved not just task performance but also fluid intelligence. This was met with a great deal of excitement, and you can find many N-back tasks on the internet. But the N-back is hard. It’s also pretty boring. I suppose that is why I have struggled with maintaining a regular practice of N-back training. While no one has disputed Jaeggi et al’s findings, the field was rocked on its heels in 2010 when Adrian Owen and his colleagues at Cambridge published a paper in Nature in which they tested 11,430 people (!!) in Britain. What they reported was that “in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.” [Notably, the N-back task was not included in the study.]  At the time I wrote that more than anything, Owen’s results were likely to spur further investigation.

And so they have.  In a very thoughtfully designed set of experiments published this past week in Nature, Adam Gazzaley’s group at UCSF report that they have developed a new game called Neuroracer that not only improves the ability of older adults to multitask, but it also improves cognitive control, working memory, and attention; all of these are cognitive domains that are known to degrade in normal aging.  The experiments are exceedingly carefully carried out – there is both an active control group who had a slightly different task and a no-contact control group; neither showed any benefit. [It is not clear whether the game would have a similar effect in younger adults, but you can be sure that those data, and more, are in the pipeline.] What is remarkable is the degree to which the Neuroracer was able to restore cognitive function.

I have not played the Neuroracer game myself, but I know from discussions with Adam that his objective was to solve not just the efficacy side of the equation, but also to make the game interesting. Although it was not discussed in the article, if Neuroracer satisfies this criterion as well, it represents a doubly important advance in the field.

Adam visited us in November 2011 and I had a chance to sit down to talk with him about the degradation of attention that accompanies multitasking in the modern world. The video can be found below.

Brain Matters! Vancouver: Abstract Submission Deadline Extended

banner-reg-siteFor those wishing to submit their abstracts for the Brain Matters! Vancouver: Braincience and Social Responsibility (March 12-14, 2014  ; Vancouver, BC, Canada), we are excited to announce that the deadline for submission of abstracts has been EXTENDED!

Submission of abstracts closes September 13, 2013.

Students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members are invited to submit abstracts on a topic of relevance to the conference. One author of each abstract will give a five minute lightning talk at the conference. Lightning talks, first pioneered at software industry conferences, are an engaging means of communicating science to specialist and non-specialist audiences alike. The format is flexible – show one slide or twenty; speak, sing, or dance; or even a video as long as you follow one rule: five minutes and only five minutes.

For more information, please click here.
(If you are having troubles viewing the link, please copy and paste the following in the URL bar of your browser: http://brainmattersvancouver.ca/abstract-submissions/)
Please post and distribute widely.

When is it rational to be nudged?

Five years ago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published a thoughtful little book called Nudge in which they outlined a broad program for improving the outcomes of human decisions. Drawing on the maturity of the field of behavioural economics, Thaler and Sunstein outlined the myriad ways in which small changes in the environment can affect the choices we make. In the intervening years, interest on the part of governments in developing such programs has grown ever stronger. In Great Britain, the Conservative government of David Cameron established the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, with Richard Thaler as advisor. Cass Sunstein was appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama, where, among other tasks, he developed government-wide regulations that nudge people in numerous ways, although exactly what was done has always been a bit under the radar. Now comes news that the US government is developing its own Behavioral Insights Team, and there is a call  for people with appropriate skills to join.

Nudging is not without its critics. Those with libertarian sensibilities are predictably outraged, even if Thaler and Sunstein described the program as an exercise in libertarian paternalism.The primary concern is that nudging infringes upon autonomy, which brings it directly into the sight lines of neuroethics. The key issues were recently summarized in a short article in The New Scientist by Evan Selinger.

Fair minded individuals may debate the degree to which the infringement upon autonomy engendered by nudges is problematic, but Gidon Felsen, Noah Castelo and I decided to take a different tack.  First of all, we reframed the issue, calling it Decisional Enhancement rather than nudging (that our reframe is, in and of itself, a bit of a nudge did not escape our notice). More importantly, we have begun to explore the question of how the public view the infringement of autonomy that decisional enhancement programs provide. Essentially, we wanted to explore the degree to which people are willing to trade autonomy for better outcomes. The results of our adventures in experimental neuroethics can be viewed in our recently published paper in Judgement and Decision Making.  One key insight is this: when people need help achieving their objectives in life, they are not loathe to give up a bit of autonomy. It does not appear to be the case that people are enthusiastic about giving up autonomy just because their objectives are aligned with the decisional enhancement program. Rather, it is when their objectives align with the program and they recognize that they are struggling with achieving that objective that the endorsement is most evident.  To put it into terms developed by Harry Frankfurt, it seems that autonomy violations are most acceptable when people recognize that their decisions are more likely to follow their lusty first-order desires – to overeat, to spend money foolishly, etc. – than their sober life objectives, what Frankfurt called second-order desires.  Viewed in this light, perhaps it is entirely rational to give up a bit of autonomy to live as we wish.